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Justin Gonzalez

Other homicide exonerations in California
At about 11 p.m. on August 30, 2016, 41-year-old Ronald Antonio was fatally stabbed outside his home at the Casa del Sol mobile home park in Woodland, California.

A friend, identified as Pedro M., told police that he and Antonio were walking to a nearby bar to play a game of pool when a car pulled up and some women emerged. One was screaming and was bleeding from a deep cut on her arm. She asked Pedro for his shirt to wrap the wound, but he refused and kept walking. Antonio stopped and gave the woman his shirt.

Minutes later, Antonio was stabbed. He was found lying on his doorstep.

Police were called and, based on witness accounts—which were not consistent—eventually searched a home at Casa del Sol and arrested 22-year-old Justin Gonzalez and 18-year-old Alexis Ivan Velazquez. The police also confiscated their clothing as well as several cell phones found in the residence.

The police brought them to Ruby Aradoz, the woman who had been cut on the arm, and Raquel Ponce-Perez, who had been with Aradoz. Aradoz identified Velazquez as the person who stabbed Antonio. She identified Gonzalez as the person she saw grab Antonio in a bearhug from behind and hold him while Velazquez stabbed him. Ponce-Perez identified Velazquez as the person who stabbed Antonio. She did not identify Gonzalez. She viewed a live lineup the next day and again did not identify Gonzalez.

Velazquez and Gonzalez were charged with first-degree murder, gang activity, and gang enhancements. Police said both were members of Varrio Bosque Norteño (VBN) street gang. Aradoz also was charged with aiding and abetting Gonzalez and Velazquez.

In October 2017, they went to trial in Yolo County Superior Court. The prosecution contended that the stabbing came after an evening during which Velazquez and Gonzalez were confronting people in the mobile home part to determine if they belonged to the rival Sureño gang members. The practice was known as “hood checking,” police said.

Marco A., a resident of Casa del Sol and a former Norteño, testified that he had come home from work and was walking his dog. He was confronted by two Hispanic men—neither of whom he was later able to identify. Marco told them he did not want any problems. He tried to back up, but they kept coming forward and pushing against him. One of them was trying to calm the other. Marco said he was wearing his work uniform, which was blue, the color associated with the Sureño gang. The men were asking him who he was and where he was from. He assumed they were gang members and were asking about gang association because of his blue clothes. Marco had a knife and pulled it out. The blade flipped out on its own and he put it away, continuing to say that he did not want problems. When the men kept backing him up, Marco took off and went home.

Pedro M. testified that he and Antonio were walking to the bar when a car pulled up and some women got out screaming. Pedro said he told Antonio to keep on walking. When one of the women, later identified as Aradoz, said she wanted to borrow Pedro's shirt, he refused and kept on walking. The woman stopped Antonio, and he gave her his shirt to stop the bleeding, Pedro said. Pedro said he kept walking for a bit, and when he turned around, he didn't see anybody. He turned back towards his house but heard screaming and a lot of running and yelling. He went straight to his house, keeping his head down. When he got there, he said Antonio was lying by his front doorstep. His stepdaughter was calling 911.

Isaiah M., another resident of the mobile home park, testified that he saw Antonio taking off his shirt and giving it to Aradoz. He said he walked over and asked her if she needed help or wanted him to call an ambulance. The cut, he said, was about three or four inches on her forearm and was bleeding badly. In response, Aradoz said, “No, you did this to me…You f------ Scrap.” Isaiah knew that Scrap was a derogatory term that a Norteño used for a Sureño. When Aradoz pulled out a knife, he ran away. He said he saw Antonio also start running.

Isaiah said he saw two Hispanic men—neither of whom he was able to identify—running toward him. One yelled “Bosque!” referring to the VBN gang. Isaiah said he ran to his father-in-law’s trailer.

Ponce-Perez testified and for the first time identified Gonzalez as the person she saw grab Antonio in a bearhug and hold him while Velazquez stabbed him. She said that she had left her trailer to check her mail when she saw two young men approaching. She also saw a woman driving a van while another woman ran alongside, shouting, “Don’t go!” Ponce-Perez said a third woman pointed in Antonio’s direction and shouted to the two men, “Come here. This is where the piece of shit is at.”

One of the men was carrying a knife, who she said was Velazquez. She said they caught up to Antonio, and Gonzalez wrapped his arms around Antonio from behind. Velazquez stabbed him twice, she said, and then Gonzalez let him go. Both men fled, and Antonio crawled away.

On December 1, 2017, while the trial was still in progress, Aradoz accepted a prosecution offer to plead guilty to being an accessory after the fact. The prosecution agreed to dismiss the charge after the trial if she testified for the prosecution. She testified that she had been drinking vodka on the night of the crime and was extremely intoxicated. She said that some parts of the night were blacked out and a blur.

She said that she had gone to Casa del Sol in a car with friends to get food at the trailer of another friend. She said she stayed in the car while her friends went inside. She remembered being in a parking lot and talking to a Hispanic man on a bicycle. She said that when he left, she noticed that she was bleeding from her right arm. She did not know the man’s name or remember their conversation.

She said she went up to two men and asked for help. One gave her his shirt. She said she walked away, wrapping her arm in the shirt. Then she saw Velazquez, whom she knew as Oso, running down the street. He called to her, and she ran in the same direction—behind Velazquez and Gonzalez.

She said Gonzalez and Velazquez both were carrying knives, although she did not see them until after Antonio was stabbed. She identified Velazquez and Gonzalez as the men who attacked Antonio.

At the time of his death, Antonio, who was Filipino, had worked at an auto repair shop for eight years and was the caretaker of his elderly father. He was not a gang member.

A medical examiner testified that Antonio died of stab wounds.

California Department of Justice criminalist Lisa Langford analyzed ten items of evidence seized by police, including a pair of jean shorts received from the Woodland police, which had been confiscated from the trailer where Gonzalez was arrested. She said Velazquez could not be excluded from DNA on the waistband. Gonzalez was excluded, she said. Langford testified that the major contributor to DNA obtained from blood on the right front pocket was Antonio. A white t-shirt and two knives submitted for examination had no blood on them, so were not tested.

A police officer who arrested Velazquez testified that Velasquez first said that he hit Antonio with a bottle because he did not like Scraps, but then retracted that.

Police said several cell phones confiscated when Gonzalez and Velazquez were arrested contained several gang-related photos as well as some videos. The photos included photos of Gonzalez with other gang members, photos of him throwing gang signs, and a video in which he was wearing a baseball cap associated with the VBN gang. In another video, he was getting his arm tattooed.

Gonzalez’s phone also had images of Velazquez throwing a gang sign associated with Norteños. In addition, the prosecution presented evidence that Gonzalez had recorded a rap song at some unknown date which was described as glorifying VBN.

The Yolo County District Attorney’s office investigator from its general criminal division, Aaron Moe, testified as a gang expert. He said he was familiar with VBN and had spoken to an estimated 20 members of that gang. He had spoken about common signs, colors, and primary activities, as well as respect and how enemies are treated. Moe said he used a system to determine gang status, reviewing eleven criteria. He said there were 20 VBN members in Woodland. He said common symbols used by the gang include the huelga bird, or Aztec eagle, that originated as a symbol for the United Farm Worker’s Association. He said Scrap was aderogatory term for rivals, the Sureños. Moe also testified that VBN wore baseball hats from the Boston Red Sox, with a “B” on them to represent Bosque, a Spanish term for a forest, or Woodland.

Moe said VBN turf encompassed all of Woodland and that the gang took steps to protect their turf. If a person was not known to the area, they would undertake “hood checking,” which involved finding out who they were and where they were from. Moe estimated that there were 10 Sureños in Woodland. The Sureños associated its gang with the color blue and would wear that color. Moe said he would expect that someone wearing blue coming into the neighborhood would be questioned. He said he had seen gang fights evolve into more significant crimes, such as shootings, stabbings, and murder.

He said that respect was an important aspect of the VBN gang that had to be both earned and maintained. To get respect, a gang member had to put in work. Moe testified that he had learned from VBN members that violent assaults help earn respect among other members and that members would be expected to react if one of their members was engaged with someone that was a Scrap or an enemy. Being feared by both rivals and community members earned respect, he said. The primary activities of the gang were assaults, batteries, assault with weapons, assault by means of force likely to produce great bodily injury, great bodily injury, attempted murder, and murder.

On December 13, 2017, the jury convicted Velazquez of first-degree murder and other charges. The jury convicted Gonzalez of second-degree murder under the felony murder law which holds people involved in a crime accountable even if they did not commit the murder. He was also convicted of engaging in gang activity.

The defense filed a post-trial motion to set aside the verdict after learning of a recorded conversation between Detective Sergio Pimentel and Aradoz. The motion said that just prior to her testifying, Aradoz said in the interview that she could not be certain if she actually saw Antonio stabbed by either Velazquez or Gonzalez because she had been influenced by what she had seen and heard while in court.

The motion said that Pimentel advised Aradoz that it was not a good idea to let the jury know her sentiment about her memory, which she admitted was faulty the evening in question due to heavy intoxication resulting in periods of blackouts before and after the murder.

The motion quoted a portion of the interview.

Aradoz: “Yeah, and that’s when I feel like it’s been so long and after being like, having to go through this whole thing, I feel…influenced by like everything I've been hearing and I don’t know how to explain it to you guys.”

Pimentel: “Well, one of the things we don’t want you to feel like you need to say is that because of everything you know about the case is why you’re answering.”

Aradoz: “Yeah, I’m not going to say that, but that’s how I feel, so that’s why I’m telling you.”

The prosecution claimed it did not know of the recording. The defense noted that Pimentel was the lead investigator for the prosecution and that the prosecution had agreed to the deal that resulted in Aradoz testifying.

The motion for a new trial was denied. Velazquez was sentenced to life in prison without parole. Gonzalez was sentenced to 90 years in prison.

On appeal, the defense raised several issues, including the prosecution’s failure to disclose the interview of Aradoz by Pimentel. In March 2022, the Third District California Court of Appeal vacated Gonzalez’s conviction.

The court held that Gonzalez’s conviction could not stand because the California Legislature had eliminated the portion of the law that allowed a defendant to be convicted of murder despite not being the actual killer. The law had not become effective until after Gonzalez was convicted. The appeals court ruled the law applied retroactively and vacated his convictions. The court upheld Velazquez’s conviction.

In October 2023, Gonzalez went to trial a second time. Among the evidence the defense presented at the retrial was the result of DNA testing that was done on the shirt that Gonzalez was wearing the night of the crime. No tests had been conducted on the shirt prior to the first trial. Antonio’s DNA was not found on the shirt. Gonzalez’s attorney, Ron Johnson, from the Yolo County public defender’s office, argued to the jury that it was “impossible” to grab Antonio in a bear hug while he was being stabbed and not get some trace of blood or other DNA on the shirt. Johnson argued to the jury, “This is a compelling case that he didn’t do it, that he is actually innocent.”

On November 1, 2023, the jury acquitted Gonzalez and he was released.

– Maurice Possley

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Posting Date: 12/2/2023
Last Updated: 12/2/2023
Most Serious Crime:Murder
Additional Convictions:Other
Reported Crime Date:2016
Sentence:90 years
Age at the date of reported crime:22
Contributing Factors:Mistaken Witness ID, False or Misleading Forensic Evidence, Perjury or False Accusation, Official Misconduct
Did DNA evidence contribute to the exoneration?:Yes